Over 60 species of opossum exist throughout the Americas. Although most live in Central and South America, one species, the Virginia or common opossum (Didelphis Virginiana), calls the United States and Canada home. The opossum, also called simply a possum, is the only marsupial living in Canada and the contiguous United States. These versatile animals are widespread and comfortable in a variety of climates and habitats, including areas heavily populated with humans.
Common opossums have gray fur on their bodies and white, pointy faces. Their naked tails are unique, as possums are the only mammal in the United States with prehensile tails. They can use them as a fifth limb for grasping things. Possums spend a lot of their time in trees, and young ones frequently hang by their tails from branches, although adults grow too heavy to do this. Adult opossums are between two and five feet long, and weigh between eight and 13 pounds. They are also the only mammal that sports four fingers and opposable thumbs on their hind feet.
Diet and Habitat
Opossums are omnivores, and they’re not picky eaters -- they generally eat anything they can catch. These scavengers are attracted to carrion, and are frequently seen raiding dumpsters and garbage cans near human dwellings. They particularly enjoy snakes and, being immune to snake venom, eat all species. Possums prefer wooded areas or farmland with water nearby, but they can adapt to most any surroundings. These transient creatures don’t have any attachment to a particular den, sleeping in whatever place is convenient and offers reasonable protection.
A female opossum gives birth less than two weeks after mating -- the shortest gestation period of any North American mammal. Up to 20 tiny babies, no bigger than a grain of rice, make a treacherous crawl to the mother’s pouch, a journey less than half of them will survive. Once they’ve reached their mother’s pouch, the young ones must find a nipple and latch on to it immediately. Each female possum has 13 nipples in her pouch; the babies that don’t find one quickly may die. After weaning at around two months of age, the babies stay with their mother for another month or two, often riding on her back.
Opossums are primarily solitary and nocturnal creatures, although younger ones are occasionally seen during the day. Females may be seen with their young, or foraging with other females, but males are territorial loners and associate with females only during mating. The opossum’s most well-known behavior relates to the way the animal reacts when threatened. If a possum encounters a predator, it falls over and enters a near-catatonic state, even emitting a strong odor. This act of “playing dead” temporarily confuses the predator, and since most animals avoid carrion, the predator leaves the opossum alone, giving it a chance to escape.
Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.